Photographing The Royal Ballet’s dancers
Andrej Uspenski has been dancing with The Royal Ballet for ten years. As a First Artist he travels the world with the company (they are currently in Tokyo), dancing most of the repertoire. Ballet isn’t his only talent, though. Sitting in the Royal Ballet press room ahead of the evening performance I spoke to Uspenski to discover the origins of his new venture – a photography book entitled Dancers.
During one company tour to the Far East, Uspenski bought some photography equipment, re-igniting his passion in the digital age. When I ask him whether he’s always loved photography, he says, “that’s a tricky question. My father took lots of pictures and we worked together in the dark room, and it has just always been part of my life.” How did he learn the technicalities of digital photography with a full-time and full-on job ? “Take a camera and take many shots. Basically. Well, you learn a lot! When you have an idea in your head and you know what you want, it’s just that you have to figure out how to get there. So you take the camera, go and shoot, and then you learn from that.”
His dancing comes first, though. “As a dancer I focus on myself first of all, but as the technology became easier and cameras faster, it was easier.” Nevertheless, Uspenski concurs that photography is an expensive business at the top end, “you have to spend a lot of money on lenses. I started with a relatively cheap camera and then I realised that I needed better equipment.” Uspenski, as with all dancers, works hard to be promoted, “it’s not up to me. I’m the wrong person to ask. I do my job and I try my best.”
Over five years Uspenski has taken over 10,000 images and began collating them into a book, which he put together himself. Uspenski says, “it’s not like most of the books you see where the photographs have been taken over a period of just six months. I have pictures over four or five years.” How did they come to life as a book ? “I ordered one copy on a website and showed it to the Opera House and everybody liked it.” Entitled DANCERS Behind the scenes with The Royal Ballet, he says, “Jeanetta Laurence [Associate Director] was really helpful and supportive. Everyone felt as though they were doing something really special, which meant a lot to me.”
The photographs are a mixture of colour and monochrome. “I thought sometimes the colour was a distraction. Every picture looks different in colour and I thought it didn’t look good to flip over and have different colours all the time. Black and white is the ultimate, you can’t go wrong with that, and they have the atmosphere as well. For the main stage, to show the costumes and make-up and how it is in real time, those photographs are in colour.”
A dancer’s day
The premise of the book is “to go through the whole of a dancer’s day. Beginning with morning class, then rehearsals, onto the smaller stages, and finally into the evening. We have a make-up section and we’re going slowly towards the main stage. That’s what we are actually working for through the whole day.”
“If they say no; it’s no. I respect that.”
I wonder whether the dancers ever resisted having their lives captured on camera, and he says, “I never felt uncomfortable. It was never an issue. I always asked for permission. If they say no; it’s no. I respect that. We have a really nice atmosphere in the theatre. We are a big family and we support each other.” Nevertheless, dancers are notoriously picky when it comes to looking at images of themselves, and Uspenski concurs, “we don’t really like ourselves in the pictures no matter how well you catch it, in 3D or HD. It’s always awkward to watch yourself, from the other side, as the audience.”
What does Uspenski look for in a photo ? “It’s an instinct. You know it when you see it. So, before the rehearsals I could say I’ll take a picture of one specific dancer. I’m already aware of how he moves, his strongest points, if it’s his jump or if he’s an actor, and what kind of ballet he’s rehearsing.”
I suggest that it must help that he isn’t a stranger to them. “It helps, it helps a lot. If I photograph a specific ballet then I already know the choreography. I know how to choose the best angles. Sometimes I like the dancer’s facial expression more than the pose. For me, it makes more sense if their facial expression is right, so I sacrifice the position they’re in. Sometimes you have a brilliant position but they have their eyes closed, so that’s not acceptable.” Is it a matter of trust as well? “It’s not necessarily a trust thing, but a dancer knows the movement.”
“The light is the challenge. Even if you understand every single ballet, the light is the challenge.”
It’s challenging work, often with very dimly lit productions. “The light is the challenge. Also, time. You end up with thousands of pictures and everyone wants them the next day. So that’s a challenge, sitting through the whole night working on them.”
Uspenski works with a Canon 5D Mark 111, “I have a zoom lens, 70-200mm f/2.8. It depends on the light, so in the studio I have different lenses – 24-200mm because you don’t need such a big lens as you’re closer. And in the studio it’s always the same light. The light is the challenge. Even if you understand every single ballet, the light is the challenge. It’s the second biggest.”
When I ask whether there is anyone in particular he’d like to photograph, he laughs and says, “I’m really well off at The Royal Ballet, I must say. We have so many different characters so that’s really interesting to photograph.” Uspenski has also photographed one of ballet’s biggest stars – the Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta, a Guest Principal of the Company, of whom he says, “Carlos is a very big star and a really charismatic character – one of the few in the world I’d say. He is really intelligent as well so when you see it behind the camera it’s just amazing. You just really feel the energy coming out from him.” When I persist, Uspenski admits “Baryshnikov would be nice !”
When the time comes to stop dancing, “I’m not getting younger. Dancers know when enough is enough and I’m not yet in the position where I can say ‘okay it’s enough’. It will happen. It happens to everyone,” Uspenski is interested in fashion photography, which he has tried before, but thinks he’d do differently. “It’s the way they stand. The way they move. It’s incredible how well they know how to stand still; how to look to the camera. I was shocked – in a good way – because I didn’t expect that. I have never seen it before. They know exactly how to look good on camera and they really love to be photographed. Dancers are slightly different. They like a good picture, and it looks posed but it’s not. But if you use dancers in fashion I think you have to do a bit more than just make them walk, because they are capable of a lot more. If you put clothes on a model, they don’t have to move. Or they can’t move in those clothes! If you put a dancer in the clothes first of all they will think about doing the splits, which would completely destroy the clothes.”
A shorter version of this feature appeared in The Stage.
Read my review of Dancers
Uspenski has a second book due for publication on September 30th. Natalia Osipova: Becoming a Swan is an intimate, unguarded portrait of the life of a ballet star, and the story of how she tamed the most captivating and enduring role in all of ballet, The Swan. Features over 150 beautiful black and white images of Natalia taken from behind the scenes and on stage, including unique glimpses taken from the wings at Covent Garden. Andrej Uspenski has used his exclusive vantage point as a First Artist with The Royal Ballet, to produce a moving photographic tribute to the most talked about prima ballerina in the world today. Includes a foreword by Alexander Agadzhanov, the Royal Ballet’s Senior Teacher and Répétiteur.
You can pre-order here :